The best Tour de France ever? Some say 1989, take your pick. During the 1989 Tour many knew it was an exceptional edition and reading and watching material from that year there were regular comparisons with 1964 held up as the vintage edition and reference point. With this in mind here’s a mini-series to take a look the 1964 Tour. Part I below looks at the year in general, the cycling season, the race’s route and format.
Lyndon Johnson was US President, Charles de Gaulle French President. Nikita Khrushchev was deposed as Soviet leader. Brazil turned into a dictatorship. Tokyo hosted the Olympics. Cassius Clay knocked out Sonny Liston. The James Bond film “Goldfinger” is released. The Beatles topped the charts. France was in the middle of a long period of strong economic growth and embracing consumer brands, television and the car and the Tour de France reflected this.
1964 in cycling
Jacques Anquetil wins Paris-Nice. Tom Simpson wins Milan-Sanremo ahead of Raymond Poulidor. Anquetil wins Gent-Wevelgem, taking the bunch sprint. Poulidor wins the Vuelta a España in the spring, it’s a two week race and he wins a time trial in Valladolid just before the final weekend to take the lead and keeps it to Madrid. Anquetil wins the Giro d’Italia for the second time, this was a three week race and he takes the race lead after the Stage 5 time trial in Parma and keeps it to the end in Milan. Miguel Indurain was born.
22 June to 14 July with 22 days of racing with 25 stages, on three days there are two stages with a road race in the morning and a time trial in the afternoon. There’s one rest day in Andorra and it’s 4,504km in total. A start in Brittany and a dash across northern France and into Belgium before a long run down France’s eastern frontier, the kind of route to satisfy Tour founder Henri Desgranges’s nationalistic streak as it asserts the eastern border and even goes into Germany; and today’s director Christian Prudhomme alike, as it never strays far from the mountains with the Ardennes, Vosges and Jura before the Alps, Pyrenees and the Puy-de-Dôme. There’s one team time trial of 21km, and three individual time trials totalling 91km.
Looking closer at the route, there’s no summit finish apart from the Puy-de-Dôme, these didn’t become regular – Alpe d’Huez was first in 1952 – until later as ski stations expanded and mass tourism grew. There are transfers too with the use of separate start and finish towns and coaches laid on to transport the riders, not a novelty for 1964 but still a talking point. It’s still a high altitude Tour with Stage 8’s 249km going via the Galibier, the 2,556m altitude mentioned on the map above indicates the riders would use the tunnel near the top of the pass to spare them the full ascent. The next day sees Stage 9 and the Restefond, aka La Bonnette at 2,802m. Stage 13 crosses to Andorra via the Port d’Envalira at 2,407m while Stages 14, 15 and 16 are gruelling days in the Pyrenees with hard climbs but also long distances across the plains just to get to them.
The race isn’t finished in the Pyrenees. Stage 20 sees the race go to the Puy-de-Dôme, an extinct volcano in central France with a steep roads that spirals up the cone. It’s not new, it’s been used in 1952 and 1959 and no less than Fausto Coppi and Federico Bahamontes won.
Stage 21 is a sadistic transition of 311km from Clermont-Ferrand to Orléans before the final day in Paris where there’s a 119km in the morning to Versailles and then an afternoon time trial from Versailles to Paris of 27km to settle the race for good.
There are time bonuses of one minute for the stage winner, 30 seconds for second place. Split stages, ie one in the morning and one in the afternoon, have 40 seconds and 20 seconds. Time trials have time bonuses too, 20 seconds and 10 seconds.
As well as the stage wins and overall classification, there’s a points competition, a mountains competition and a team prize.
There were 132 starters with 12 teams of 11 riders. The peloton was 38 Belgians, 35 Frenchmen, 25 Spaniards, 14 Dutch, 12 Italians, four Britons, three Germans and one Irishman in Seamus “Shay” Elliott. All the teams are sponsored by various consumer brands, a format in place since 1962.
The race was run by sports newspaper L’Equipe with financial backing from Émilion Amaury, the owner of le Parisien Libéré, a newspaper. One year later in 1965 Amaury would buy L’Equipe bringing ownership of the race in-house and the format we know today.
Steel frames, leather saddles and five-speed gears at the back. Gearing was a big matter with riders and mechanics carefully selecting chainrings and sprockets for each day’s course as there was not much range. 54×13 was probably the biggest gear possible and reserved for a few strongmen in the time trials but a 52 was widespread. 42×25 was as low as it got for the mountains but many had a 44 because that was the smallest ring possible for a Campagnolo Record. With a five speed freewheel they’d chose between, say, 13-15-17-19-21 or even 14-16-18-20-23. This explains the low cadence and rocking shoulders.
Watching the race
Millions watch from the roadside. TV ownership is growing in France. It is televised by French state broadcaster ORTF which also shares with Eurovision so that viewers in nearby countries can watch too. Typically the final 15km are shown live thanks a camera on a moto able to broadcast its output via radio link to helicopter above the race which also has a camera and then beams on the signal to the production truck at the finish. More footage is captured on film by two motos with cameras containing film reel and at the finish inside a special development-laboratory truck the film is processed, edited and turned into highlights for newsreels that evening with the final cut being beamed to the nearest broadcast tower, either direct from the stage finish’s production truck but sometimes requiring transport in motorbike or helicopter. Every evening at 8.30pm the highlights are beamed out in France with a voice commentary and a jazz soundtrack.
Plenty listen to the race via the radio with several stations competing to broadcast from the race. Newspapers play a big part, especially since L’Equipe and Le Parisien are involved in the race. For some the results are communicated via telegram, a message being delivered to a village café containing the stage placings is stuck on the wall or in the window so patrons can see the results before the newspaper arrives.
30 year old Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor start the Tour de France as joint favourites. Poulidor is portrayed as the rising talent but he’s 28 years old and needing to deliver, he’d been tipped for the top in 1963 only to finish eighth overall and disappoint. Anquetil won in 1963 and returns looking for his fifth Tour title and to equal Coppi as the only rider to achieve the Giro-Tour double in a season, he is thinking increasingly of his palmarès and for ways to endear himself to the French public. 36 year old Federico Bahamontes, the “Eagle of Toledo”, is the third pick after he’d finished second the previous year and has been a consistent force, winning the 1959 edition and being the best climber in five of the past ten editions of the race.
In Part II soon we’ll take a look at how the the race played out stage-by stage.